Founded by guitarist Neil Hagerty, The Howling Hex hails from New Mexico. The band is often praised for their raw tones and audacious composition style. Also, with the return of Hagerty to the group for Knuckleball Express, the band’s first album with the label Fat Possum Records, their new set of music looked promising. Lamentably, the album will probably end up representing a lackluster start for anyone who expects variety, freshness and that feeling of excitement that tends to overcome the listener when they realize that they’re listening to something utterly new and far from derivative.
The opening track “Lies” features a coarse guitar tone and crude singing. The upbeat riff might hook a listener’s attention right away, but that’s about it. Despite the band’s brute force efforts to cram in as many guitar solos as they possibly can, which are played alongside the riff, their attempts to conceal this track’s remarkably unremarkable song structure are without success. “Mr. Chicken,” on the contrary, is a lot more creative and complex in terms of structure. Kristine Shafer’s polished melodies and conventionally beautiful backing vocals contrast intensely with the rough main vocals. The section dedicated to a melodic guitar solo creates a sweet and rewarding juxtaposition with the ruggedness of the rest of the piece.
The band’s efforts on “Rootbeer Mother” can be simply described as reverb galore. This song stands out as it is also devoid of any coherent form, creating a distinctly nauseating combination of overwrought effects, poor songwriting and generally unremarkable instrumentation. It’s definitely not memorable in a good way. Fortunately, “Heavy Curtains” has an outstanding riff where the bands’ three guitars weave in and out of one another. The bass is more pronounced, and the drums are also varied and creative. Although short, “Share A Name” is also rich in expression—it sounds like the band is ecstatic to have overcome some of their worst missteps up to this point in the project.
The final track, “North Aquarian,” is unusually long compared to the rest of the tracks. Interestingly, the vocals appear only in the beginning and end of the song. The intro is followed by an instrumental frenzy, featuring a seemingly endless and truly frenetic guitar shredding, and capricious drumming. Even towards the end, the guitar maintains that very same aggressive energy.
Listeners who are unfamiliar with the band may feel somewhat disappointed by this album. That being said, Knuckleball Express still has a few raw and exciting musical moments. While there may not be enough of these moments to satisfy The Howling Hex enthusiasts and fervent Hagerty fans, it might be just enough to hold out hope for a better project to come out in the future. While most of Hagerty’s compositions are abstract and experimental, his music is genuine and usually has minimal influence from the mainstream. Thus, to enjoy his craft to a greater extent, the listener has to forget about critiquing, and simply let oneself react, whether that reaction be creative elation or all-consuming disappointment.